Sunday, February 24, 2013

Excerpt from "Moral, Believing Animals" Part one

I wanted to share some excerpts from the book Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. By Dr. Christian Smith, Professor and Associate Chair of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This is from Chapter Five

You can find Dr. Smith's book here on Amazon.

I will post another set of excerpts from this book next week.


What is religion? And why are so many people in the world religious? These are old questions, in answer to which much ink has been spilled in recent centuries. To some extent they are simply impossible questions, incapable of being answered satisfactorily. For quite a while now, many scholars have been weary of the “definition of religion” debate. And even more scholars have simply jettisoned the “origins of religion” question. It is all come to seem so antiquated, so futile.

            Yet religion is simply too fascinating a thing to let sit, to not continue to probe fundamental questions about it. We pretty well know what people are up to, and why, when they labor to produce goods and services for consumption. We know why people engage in political life to make collective decisions. We know why they built armies, form families, write laws, and educate youth.

            But why do people, very many people, engage in religion? Why do they take seriously realities that are unseen? What induces people to give away time and money and perhaps much more for intangible things “spiritual"? What are people doing when they pray, and why are they doing it? What is it that gets people out of bed every Sunday morning for their entire lives? Or to abstain from food and sex during daylight hours for an entire month every year? Nobody is finally making people do religion. It does not produce any obvious material benefits. In much of the world, religion is entirely voluntary. In other parts of the world it is actively suppressed. And yet billions of humans profess and practice religion anyway. What an interesting phenomena. [...]
What is religion?

  The definition-of-religion question has frustrated many scholars because of the recurrent problems of categorizing and of drawing boundaries around “religion” that it inevitably raises. Is Confucianism a religion? Is nontheistic Buddhism a religion? Is Scientology a religion? Is Marxism a religion? Is the Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry a religion? Is religion defined by the substance of things supernatural or divine? Or by the particular social functions it supposedly serves? [...]
           It does appear that human communities have since their beginning engaged in various practices that we now normally call religious, but that does not mean that there is some standard social property, Religion, the social equivalent to an element of chemistry's periodic table, that the investigator identifies and researches. [...]
            Furthermore, it is helpful to remind ourselves that as inquirers we can never investigate religion from a neutral and generic perspective, or even think and talk about religion using neutral and generic “language.” Rather, we necessarily approach things religious specifically as secularists, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and so on who have been socialized either in the United States, India, or elsewhere and who think and speak not in “language” but in English or some other particular native tongue. And all of those particularities inevitably shape how we can and do think about religion, including ways that it might be useful for us to define religion.

            Having said that, I do not think it would be a  constructive move for social scientists to abandon the concept of “religion” altogether. For we do find what appear to be certain common features across the kind of narratives, beliefs, experiences, practices, and traditions that we commonly call “religious,” and we can and do find it analytically useful to categorize them together under this single concept. But what is it that religion share in common, or at least that we commonly think of them as sharing in common? What in our thinking and speech set the parts things religious from other social practices and institutions? I think it most helpful to think about religions in this way: religions are sets of beliefs, symbols, practices about the reality of superempirical orders that make claims to organize and guide human life. Put more simply, if less precisely, what we mean by religion is an ordinarily unseen reality that tells us what truly is and how we therefore ought to live. (p 95-98)

C. Smith. Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. ( 2003, Oxford University Press)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Muddy Thinking or Precious Learning

At the end of your life,
you can’t take your jewelry with you,
you can’t take your home or your car,
your clothes or any other possession with you.
But there is one golden possession that I believe does stay with you:


Milwaukee Public Library Stacks
(c) Lisa Guinther 2013

Don’t waste your times with sitcoms or endless video games; instead read. Read difficult books, deep books, thoughtful books that stretch your mind-muscle. Don’t muddy your thinking with television but exercise your powers of concentration past the 10 minute period before the next commercial break.

Discover the treasure trove of great literature, poetry, epic novels and historical dramas. Test the depth of your faith and knowledge of the Bible by studying the amazing records of history surrounding the ancient world. Read about the world of Egypt, Ur of the Chaldeans, or follow the rise of the Greek world and the birth of philosophy. Enliven your understanding of the New Testament by studying the history of the Roman Empire. Do not allow yourself to be settled and satisfied in your learning.  Do not become stagnate in your understandings. Grow!

I believe that as Christians who are called to build God’s kingdom on earth, we are also called to build up our inner nature, you know, the one that is being “renewed day by day” (2 Cor .4:16), and if we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2) then we need to study, read, learn, and grow.

I am convinced that the process of learning is the precious gems, gold and silver you build on the sound foundation that is Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11) That is what St. Paul is writing about in that passage.
So when your building is tested by fire, what will remain?
"For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw; the work of each builder will become visible...because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire."

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A bit of Hume: Thoughts on Skepticism

"David Hume" by Allan Ramsay
Scottish  National Gallery

First of all, I want to say that Hume’s style of writings is an utter delight to read, and it is a shame that there aren’t more writers with his grace of prose.

To set the stage for you, this quote is from David Hume's book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and this is the character Philo speaking. The debate in these dialogues is to argue whether or not it is possible to know that God exists from a posteriori reasoning, or in other words, to reason from the natural world we see “backwards” to prove God’s existence. At the end of dialog VIII Philo concludes with great flourish:

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn, while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumphant for the skeptic, who tells them that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgment is here our only reasonable recourse. And if every attack, as is commonly observed, and no defense among theologians is successful, how complete must be his victory who remains always, with all mankind, on the offensive, and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which is ever, on any occasion obliged to defend?(p 53)

If one is to never have, in Hume’s words “…fixed station or abiding city…” of one's own beliefs to defend and instead to live a life of a philosophical wanderer, with no solid ground under their feet, how then to build one's life? What does a perennial skeptic cling to when the storms of life come? Is there a city anywhere that the wandering skeptic can come back to and be welcome?

This analogy seems to point to a certain nobility of the calling of a philosophical skeptic; weary of the defense of any theological theory for the existence of God due to the inconsistencies and errors in reasoning that can be shown in many arguments. So in the final analysis, why not be the ultimate winner, show the holes in any belief system, and hold to none of them.

Since this dialog seems to need a winner and a loser, and since Hume wrote most of his discourses against the tenants of the Christian faith, I suppose I should find his arguments a threat. Many philosophy students question how it is I can even consider being a philosopher and a Christian.

Is my defending Christianity a joyful stupidity, or is it blind faith?  Do I now hold my Christian faith separate from my college classes?  Should I wander, like Hume, far from the city called religion? (Or more properly Christianity.)  

Did Hume wander from Christianity, or was he driven out? When he asked hard questions, was he told that he was silly, or that his questions were against “faith”, or even heretical?  What if men and women of similar mind as David Hume were put in our midst to help us strengthen and clarify our beliefs? Can we rejoice in the fact that we need the skeptics to rework and refine our faith, to be the fire in the refining furnace. 

Yes we need you skeptic, to dwell with us inside our fortress of beliefs to keep us examining our presuppositions and axiom we believe are so secure. Please show us the cracks in our foundational hypotheses that need repair or even rebuilding, and help us to open the gates and allow new learning to come inside.

 Do not roam as a vagrant over this Earth, come and make your home with us in our city of beliefs and help us to examine our truth and delve deeper for the aquifer that contains the pure knowledge from the source of living water. Let us give you a place of honor, as one who teaches us to keep learning, reading, searching and examining. That is where the truest faith can be found.

Monday, February 11, 2013

From Wineskins, "Sexualization and Christianity: How Should We Respond?"

Take time to carefully read through this article by Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker PhD. Jennifer is a nationally certified school psychologist and licenced specialist in school psychology.

I pulled this quote from her article "Sexualization and Christianity: How Should We Respond?"

“ When I talk about girls and women sexualizing themselves, I’m not talking about enjoying looking nice, exercising and eating healthily, coloring hair or wearing makeup. I believe everyone can enjoy looking their best and being healthy without obsessively focusing on their appearance as the primary source of their value. Sexualization comes into the picture when girls and women get to a point where they no longer see their own value outside of their ability to be attractive. In my research with adolescents, church going adolescents were even more likely than non church goers to rate physical attractiveness as linked to a female’s value. When following this up in interviews, I was told by young girls, 'Well there’s nothing else for us to do at church but look good.' and 'It’s our job to sit there and look pretty.' Girls are learning to value themselves only as they can be viewed as attractive to the opposite sex. They begin to see themselves only as objects of other people’s desire, rather than someone who is beautiful and valuable because of the person that God created them to be.”

Read the whole article here. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The Perils of Preferential Love" by Tom C. McGee, Jr.

Here is a post from Tom C. McGee, Jr's blog, titled "The Perils of Preferential Love".

Illustration by Tom C. McGee

"Christian love knows no preferences. I would prefer that people are somewhat like me and that they actually do like me. I would prefer that we have something in common to talk about or that they have something to offer me. I would prefer that they not ask me for money and that they would be reasonable in their political views. But, true love has nothing to do with all that."

Go here to read the whole post. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Aching Hearts"

Mere et Enfant, Picasso 1902
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge MA.

Am I an inspiration,
a friend,
Or just someone who listens?

Is it longing for care we never had,
Is this a communion of those who lack,
hurting hearts drawn together by a memory?

The young man, trying to be tough, complete with piercings and tattoos,
a tender heart shining from his eyes.
He is looking for something that I cannot give him.

Oh dear heart, I am not your mother,
but my own heart aches with you.

A young woman from a broken home,
looking for wisdom and inspiration.
Am I showing hope and inner strength?
A prayer to shield her from more pain—
But knowing I cannot.

Oh dear heart, I am not your mother,
but my own heart aches with you.

In these brief encounters,
passing moments long or short.
I trust in Your ever present grace,
to surround us all.

For Your heart aches as well.